The Other side of the Archives War: How the Republic of Texas and the General Land Office Were Held Hostage

December 31 is the 175th anniversary of the Archives War

Austin has always been a little weird. It’s possible the weird spirit first developed 175 years ago in late 1842 and early 1843, when an armed group known as the Austin Vigilance Committee fired a cannon upon the second Land Commissioner of Texas, Thomas William “Peg Leg” Ward, in an incident known as the Archives War.[1]

Certainly, this event has been often written about and romanticized in Austin folk-lore as an early example of strong, local pride.[2] But we have a somewhat different perspective at the GLO. It was the GLO and its commissioner that was under fire by the Austinites of 1842, and it was the Texas government archives, including the GLO’s important land records, that were held hostage for more than a year — much to the detriment of the rest of the Republic. Here is the story of the Archives War, and what it meant, from the GLO’s perspective.

The Archives War has been described as “an incident whose time period is said to be limited to two days, whose geographic area did not exceed twenty miles, and in which some hundred men and one woman figured,” and it was the result of the Mexican invasion of San Antonio.[3] This description, however, downplays the potential catastrophe that could have stricken the Republic due to the behavior of the citizens of Austin. One State Department clerk wrote that Austin was, “guarded by a regular organized Company of disorganizers.” Strangely, the event is sometimes cast as an amusing episode in Texas history.[4] However, there were real consequences that affected almost every citizen of the Republic between 1842 and 1844, and would have had serious ramifications for the people of Austin if the government were removed from the city.

At the beginning of the 1840s, Austin was precariously situated between Comanches to the west and north,[5] Mexican troops to the south,[6] and Texas politicians to the East; all of which touched off a paranoia in the city. The fear was not unfounded, as in 1842, “the capital of the republic was desolate, vacant houses on all sides,” as a result of the Mexican invasion on San Antonio in 1842.[7] William Murrah described the city as looking lonely and deserted, and the “wind sighs mournfully around the Corners of vacant houses.”[8]

City of Austin in 1840. From Lawrence, A.B., Texas in 1840, or The Emigrant’s Guide to the New Republic. New York, 1840. (Source: Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.)

Martial law was declared in Austin when 700 Mexican soldiers occupied San Antonio on March 5, 1842. Many families were told that they should leave. The Mexican army would retreat after two days. On March 10, President Houston ordered the government to Houston, something he had tried doing repeatedly through legislative channels, to no avail.[9] Houston ordered the removal of the archives as well, saying:

“The destruction of the national archives would entail irremediable injury upon the whole people of Texas…Should the infinite evil which the loss of the national archives would occasion, fall upon the country through his [the President’s] neglect of imperious constitutional duty, he would be culpable in the extreme, and must justly incur the reproach of a whole nation.”[10]

Afterwards, the diplomatic maneuvering and saber-rattling commenced. On March 16, the Austin Vigilance Committee was organized to guard and prevent removal of the public archives from Austin. On the same day, Houston’s private secretary, W.D. Miller, wrote that the citizens of Austin would not let the archives be moved, and they “would much rather take their rifles to prevent a removal than to fight Mexicans.”[11] Houston, aware of the sentiment in Austin and conditions in San Antonio, instructed Land Commissioner Ward to make the necessary preparations for the transportation of the Archives, regardless of opinion in Austin. Ward, desiring to protect the Land Office Archives, even at the risk of his own personal safety, wrote to Houston that he would carry out his orders on April 18. He said, “I cannot consider the Archives at all safe at this point, and should be most willing to yield the most implicit obedience to the order of the President for the removal of the archives to a place of greater safety.”[12] Ward was stopped by the Vigilance Committee.

Sam Houston, physical object, Date Unknown; (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth32932/: accessed December 19, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Star of the Republic Museum.

On June 27, President Houston convened a Special Session of Congress to ask for the removal of the capital and archives from Austin, but Congress rejected his request. Three months later, on September 11, Mexican forces again occupied San Antonio.[13] Houston again ordered the removal of the archives, this time to Washington-on-the-Brazos.[14] Again, Ward was stopped. There were reports that the Mexican army had even tried to reach Austin, but were turned back by high waters due to a storm.[15] Writing to the Vigilance Committee on September 23, Ward stated that the citizens of Austin interfering with removal of the archives had the potential to put the records, and the Republic, at greater risk. Ward said that if the enemy captured the archives because of the refusal of the Austinites to cooperate, it “would be a greater victory than the most glorious battle won in the field.”[16]

Commissioner Thomas William “Peg Leg” Ward. PICB 07577, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

Later that month, Ward ordered the business of the General Land Office to be suspended until further notice.[17] On October 15, President Houston again ordered the seat of government to be moved from Austin to Washington-on-the-Brazos.[18] Houston notified Ward of Capt. Eli Chandler and Col. Thomas I. Smith’s impending arrival to remove the archives with “secrecy, efficiency, and dispatch” from Austin on December 10. Houston feared, “What the Mexican or the Indian enemy might not do, I am led to believe from the various threats that have reached my ears, might be accomplished by the irresponsible, unprincipled and lawless among our own citizens.” Houston continued, “I am told that their destruction by fire has been frequently denounced by some of those who oppose their removal. Such an event would produce not only incalculable but irreparable injury to the people of Texas.”[19] Worried that the Austinites might actually carry through their inflammatory threats, Ward moved the boxes of Land Office records into his private office.

The GLO had to close as a result of Houston ordering the government being moved from Austin. Kenny Helgen, GLO Building_001. Archives and Records, Texas General Land Office, Austin.

On the morning of December 30, Smith and Chandler, along with twenty-four government troops and three wagons, quietly moved into Austin to carry out the orders of the President. With Ward’s assistance, they began loading the eleven boxes of records. Everything was ready by noon. Ward, however, “…was confronted by a clot of angry villagers who had trained the town ordnance on the wagons, all led by a woman with a match in her hand who swore to blow them to kindling wood at the first sign of movement.”[20] Ward explained, “Much excitement prevailed here, a howitzer loaded with grape was discharged at my residence after I heard the cry of ‘blow the old house to pieces,’ eight shot perforated the buildings,” alerting the Austin mob.[21]

Mrs. Eberley Firing off Cannon. Courtesy of Texas State Library and Archives Commission — 0001_104_121_Angelina_400_rgb_E2400

The woman leading the charge was Angelina Eberly, a local inn-keeper. She fired at Peg Leg and the Land Office Building, as the twenty-four troops with the government records quickly took the road northeast to Kinney’s Fort on Brushy Creek on the way to Washington.[22]

As an aside, Ward had bad luck when it came to cannons, and the Archives War was just the latest incident. Just a year earlier, Ward, Mayor of Austin at the time, lost his right arm to a malfunctioning cannon blast while celebrating the five-year anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto. Prior to that, during the siege and assault of Bexar in 1835, Ward had lost his right leg to cannon fire. It is rumored that his leg is buried with Ben Milam — a rumor that it’s believed Ward started.

On Dec. 30, 1842, the troops withdrew with their loaded wagons, Ward sending Nathan Mitchell, GLO Spanish Translator, and Walter Winn, Assistant Clerk with the records. The two clerks were instructed not to let anyone seize or harm the GLO records, no matter what.[23] The pursuing party overtook the government officials and blocked their advance. A brief firefight took place before the archives were surrendered to prevent blood from being spilled.”[24] The following day a party of sixty-eight Austinites made it clear to Mitchell and Winn that if they got in the way of the Austinites recovering the archival records, they would be the first to be shot down.[25]

Detail of GLO employees securing boxes of records from Mrs. Angelina Eberly Firing Off a Cannon. Mrs. Eberley Firing off Cannon. Courtesy of Texas State Library and Archives Commission — 0001_104_121_Angelina_400_rgb_E2400

“The archives were forcibly taken from them and lodged in Mrs. Eberly’s house…I have employed all the exertion I could to have them restored to this place, but in vain, and what the result may be, Providence alone can determine. Many threats have been made against me…but however dangerous or unpleasant my situation may be I will not complain if I can do a service to the Republic,” said Ward of his precarious situation.[26] After returning to Austin, the records were kept at Angelina Eberly’s home — after all, she had already proven that she was willing to take up arms to protect the records. It should be noted that Angelina Eberly had an economic interest in the seat of government staying in Austin, as she had recently purchased Austin City Lots 1, 2 & 3 of Block 71 from the Republic of Texas, through the General Land Office on February 5, 1842.[27]

Angelina Eberly purchased lots 1–4 on Block 71 (Corner of 6th & Lavaca) from the Republic of Texas through the General Land Office in February of 1842. Austin City Lot 000051, Archives and Records, Texas General Land Office, Austin. Detail from De Cordova’s A Topographical Map of the City of Austin, 1872. GLO Map #93685. Archives and Records, Texas General Land Office, Austin.

Throughout the early months of 1843, Ward pressed the Vigilance Committee to return the papers to the Land Office. He argued that the agency needed to reopen, so citizens of the Republic could once again locate land and perfect titles. Ward pleaded, “…although you oppose the Executive of your country in the discharge of his constitutional duties…you have as little or much less right to hold in your possession the property of the citizens of the Republic, whose rights are now jeopardized by your illegal detention of their land claims…” Ward reminded the Committee, “…when a small portion of the citizens of a country sets the law aside and forcibly takes and detains the property of a majority of the people of the country; anarchy and confusion must inevitably ensue.”[28]

Negotiations for the archives went back-and-forth throughout 1843. Realizing he was getting nowhere, Ward proclaimed that the Land Office would open on May 1, 1843 in Washington-on-the-Brazos with the rest of the government, and the GLO would do so without possession of its archives. Growing increasingly frustrated with the actions of the Austin committee, Ward proclaimed that it would be “injurious to the citizens” if the total suspension of the land business persisted, and that he would make-do as existing circumstances would permit.[29]

It wasn’t until January 8, 1844, more than a year after the Archives were seized, that the eleven boxes of land records were recovered. The Archives War was essentially over. Finally, on September 25, 1845, the government came back to Austin.[30]

The Archives War was a strange event in Texas history that has often been dismissed as a farce — a notion that could not be further from the truth. The winner of the war was the citizens of Austin. Those early Austinites nullified presidential orders, made threats on the lives of several government officials, threatened to destroy the public archives and risked clouding title to millions of acres throughout the Republic, and halted business at the GLO because of their own self-interests.

One of the results was the halt in land business for the republic. Analysis of the GLO’s Land Grant Database shows the decline in business from 1841–1843. There were 1,445 patents issued in 1841. The following year, there were only 349 patents issued due to the closing of the Land Office. In 1843, there were only 6 patents issued. This was a result of the Land Office not having access to their records. Surveyors and draftsmen could not determine if land being claimed was available or not. Later, in 1844, the Land Office issued 482 patents, and the following year, the agency issued 2,941.[31]

Analysis of the GLO Land Grant Database shows an extreme drop in business during the Mexican Invasion of San Antonio, and the Archives War.

In an interesting twist, 175 years later, archivists have latched on to embracing the Archives War and Angelina Eberly. Why not? She was an early heroine to the City of Austin. But her actions, and the actions of the Vigilance Committee, don’t exactly stand up to the core values of the archival profession. Shouldn’t archivists actually be embracing Land Commissioner Ward? After all, he was the dutiful government official who was trying to protect the records, and never once threatened to destroy them.

Society of American Archivists, University of Texas at Austin Student Chapter, Archives — Worth Fighting For! Archives Week in Austin, October 11–15, 1999.

According to the Society of American Archivists (SAA), one of their core values is “Responsible Custody.” Let’s examine this core value:

1) Archivists should ensure proper custody for the documents and records entrusted to them. Were the citizens of Austin taking proper care of these items when there was a real fear/possibility of Mexican or Native American invasion of Austin when the proper authorities were ordering their removal? No.

2) As responsible stewards, archivists are committed to making reasonable and defensible choices for the holdings of their institutions. What is the defense for taking the records of the Republic, and jeopardizing the entire population of the country? Self interest? Doesn’t sound reasonable to us.

3) They [Archivists] strive to balance the sometimes-competing interests of various stakeholders. The competing interests here are those of the government, and every other member of the Republic of Texas society who had an interest in having clear title to their land, and then the remaining 200 people who lived in Austin. If this represents balance, then the scale needs to be recalibrated.

4) Archivists are judicious stewards who manage records by following best practices in developing facilities service standards, collection development policies, user service benchmarks, and other performance metrics. Burying records underneath a building, and airing them out once every two weeks, does not constitute best practices when it comes to developing facilities standards.

5) Archivists collaborate with external partners for the benefit of users and public needs. Stealing records at gun point would not be considered a true collaboration.

6) In certain situations, archivists recognize the need to deaccession materials so that resources can be strategically applied to the most essential or useful materials. Finally, we don’t think this is exactly what our friends at SAA had in mind when it came to de-accessioning records.

Society of American Archivists, University of Texas at Austin Student Chapter, Archives — Worth Fighting For! Archives Week in Austin, 1999; Society of & Texas Historical Records Advisory Board (THRAB), Defend our Digital Heritage: Become an Advocate for Archives in Texas, Poster, Texas Archives Month, 2014.

The Archives War is a fascinating chapter in early Texas history. There are colorful characters, examples of political one-upmanship, a strong female lead — maybe even an antihero, as the foil to two powerful, well-connected, men, and no one got hurt. However, in our opinion, archivists should not necessarily be celebrating Angelina Eberly with posters, coffee mugs, and everything else. But we get it. Having a picture of a woman shooting a cannon does grab your attention a little more than most any other images associated with the archives profession in Texas. Ward, however, is the one who should be celebrated! He was duty-bound. He had all his stakeholders in mind, and he worked tirelessly to protect the records in a reasonable way by attempting to remove them to a part of the Republic that was less likely to be attacked by Native Americans or an invading Mexican Army. I concede that it makes sense for the citizens of Austin to celebrate Eberly. She saved the city from being left in the dust. But archivists?

Angelina Eberly, and the entire two-year Archives War, offers a great example of the power of archives, and what they mean to a society, as the last 200 people left in Austin did everything they could to hold on to the government records. This serves as proof that where the archives go, so goes the power. So, in that sense, Austinites and archivists SHOULD celebrate the Archives War. No wonder people think Austin is weird.

Statue of Angelina Eberly in downtown Austin.

Footnotes:

[1] Handbook of Texas Online, Claudia Hazlewood, “Archives War,” accessed December 15, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mqa02.

[2] See the bibliography at the end of this article for a list of the secondary sources.

[3] Hope Yager, The Archive War of Texas. Master’s Thesis, University of Texas. 1939, 1.

[4] David Humphrey, Peg Leg: The Improbable Life of a Texas Hero, Thomas William Ward 1807–1872. (Denton: Texas State Historical Association, 2009), 90.

[5] Handbook of Texas Online, Carol A. Lipscomb, “Comanche Indians,” accessed December 15, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/bmc72.

[6]Handbook of Texas Online, Thomas W. Cutrer, “Army of the Republic of Texas,” accessed December 15, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qja03.

[7] The Galveston Daily News. Early Days in Texas. February 16, 1896.

[8] Francis Latham, Travels in the Republic of Texas, 1842, ed. Gerald S. Pierce (Austin: Encino Press, 1971), 22–25; W.H. Murrah to M.P. Woodhouse, May 30, 1842, Box 2–23/904, Woodhouse Papers.

[9] Handbook of Texas Online, Jack W. Gunn, “Mexican Invasions of 1842,” accessed December 15, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qem02.

[10] Williams and Barker (eds.), Writings of Sam Houston, II, 533.

[11] W.D. Miller to Sam Houston, March 16, 1842. (MS., W.D. Miller Papers, Archives, Texas State Library.)

[12] Thomas William Ward to President Sam Houston. April 2, 1842. Early Letters Sent, 1840–1845 [Commissioner’s Correspondence]. Vol. 3, Part 1. Pp. 308. Archives and Records. Texas General Land Office. Austin.

[13] Gunn, “Mexican Invasions of 1842.”

[14] Sam Houston to Thomas William Ward. October 8, 1842. Executive Office, Washington. Early Letters Sent, 1840–1845 [Commissioner’s Correspondence]. Vol. 3, Part 1. Pp. 311. Archives and Records. Texas General Land Office. Austin.

[15] William Bollaert, William Bollaert’s Texas. (Norman: Published in co-operation with the Newberry Library, Chicago, by the University of Oklahoma Press, c1956), 148.

[16] Thomas William Ward to Samuel Whiting. September 23, 1842. Early Letters Sent, 1840–1845 [Commissioner’s Correspondence]. Vol. 3, Part 1. Pp. 310. Archives and Records. Texas General Land Office. Austin.

[17] Proclamation Closing the General Land Office(s). September 28, 1842. Early Letters Sent, 1840–1845 [Commissioner’s Correspondence]. Vol. 3, Part 2. Pp. 326. Archives and Records. Texas General Land Office. Austin.

[18] Hazlewood, “Archives War.”

[19] Sam Houston to Thomas William Ward. December 10, 1842. Early Letters Sent, 1840–1845 [Commissioner’s Correspondence]. Vol. 3, Part 1. Pp. 311–312. Archives and Records. Texas General Land Office. Austin.

[20] James L. Haley, Sam Houston. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), 252.

[21] Thomas William Ward to Sam Houston. January 8, 1843. Early Letters Sent, 1840–1845 [Commissioner’s Correspondence]. Vol. 3, Part 1. Pp. 312–313. Archives and Records. Texas General Land Office. Austin.

[22] Ward is known for having poor luck when it comes to cannons, and the Archives War was just the latest incident. Just a year earlier, Ward lost his right arm to a cannon while celebrating the five-year anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto. Prior to that, during the Siege of Bexar, Ward lost his right leg to cannon fire. It is rumored that Ward’s leg is buried with Ben Milam.

[23] Statement of the Clerks, Nathan Mitchell and Walter Winn. January 25, 1843. Early Letters Sent, 1840–1845 [Commissioner’s Correspondence]. Vol. 3, Part 1. Pp.313–315. Archives and Records. Texas General Land Office. Austin.

[24] Haley, Sam Houston. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), 261.

[25] Statement of the Clerks, Nathan Mitchell and Walter Winn. January 25, 1843. Early Letters Sent, 1840–1845 [Commissioner’s Correspondence]. Vol. 3, Part 1. Pp.313–315. Archives and Records. Texas General Land Office. Austin.

[26] Thomas William Ward to Sam Houston. January 8, 1843. Early Letters Sent, 1840–1845 [Commissioner’s Correspondence]. Vol. 3, Part 1. Pp. 312–313. Archives and Records. Texas General Land Office. Austin.

[27] A.B. Eberly Austin City Lots File #51. Archives and Records, Texas General Land Office, Austin.

[28] Thomas William Ward to the Committee of the People of Austin in possession of the Land Office Records. January 24, 1843. Early Letters Sent, 1840–1845 [Commissioner’s Correspondence]. Vol. 3, Part 2. Pp. 323. Archives and Records. Texas General Land Office. Austin.

[29] Thomas William Ward Proclamation on Opening the Land Offices. March 7, 1843. Early Letters Sent, 1840–1845 [Commissioner’s Correspondence]. Vol. 3, Part 1. Pp. 315. Archives and Records. Texas General Land Office. Austin.

[30] The Republic of Texas: The Archives War. Texas State Library and Archives Commission. https://www.tsl.texas.gov/treasures/republic/archwar/archwar.html. (Accessed December 19, 2017).

[31] A patent is an instrument that represents the final step in the land-granting process; whereby the sovereign government conveys its legal title to lands that had been previously awarded. In essence, the award vests equitable title to the grantee, sometimes with obligations attached. When the grantee has met its obligations under the award, the grantee is entitled to a patent. The patent shows that the land was awarded and all obligations to the government have been met, thereby severing the government’s title and interest in the ownership of the land.

Bibliography:

Gray, George H. “The Archives War: A Leaf from the History of Austin,” A Texas Scrap-Book: Made Up of the History, Biography and Miscellany of Texas and its People. Compiled by D. W. C. Baker; with a new introduction by Robert A. Calvert. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1875. Reprint: Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1991.

Fowler, Mike, and Jack Maguire, The Capitol Story, Statehouse of Texas (Austin: Eakin Press, 1988).

Green, Michael R., “The Archive War,” Texas Library Journal, Vol. 62, №1 (Spring 1986): 67–71.

Hazlewood, Claudia, “Archives War,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 15, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mqa02.

Humphrey, David C. PEG LEG: The Improbable Life of a Texas Hero, Thomas William Ward, 1807–1872. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2009.

H. J. J. [Henry J. Jewett], “The Archive War of Texas,” De Bow’s Review, Vol. XXVI, Vol. I, №5 (May 1859): 513–523.

Kemp, Louis W. “Mrs. Angelina B. Eberly,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 36, №3 (January, 1933): 193–199.

Skinner, A. E. “Mrs. Eberly and that Cannon: Myth-Making in Texas History,” Texas Libraries, Vol. 43, №4 (Winter 1981): 155–163.

Thrall, Homer, S, A Pictorial History of Texas (St. Louis: Thompson, 1879).

Winfrey, Dorman H. “The Texan Archive War of 1842,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. LXIV, №2 (October, 1960): 172–184.

Winfrey, Dorman H. “The Archives Wars in Texas,” The American Archivist, Vol. 23, №4 (October 1960): 431–437.

Yager, Hope. The Archive War in Texas. Master’s Thesis, University of Texas, August, 1939.